New-style Indonesian leader takes on world's oldest profession

New-style Indonesian leader takes on world's oldest profession
A woman uses a calculator as prostitutes wait for customers in the Dolly district in Surabaya March 24, 2014.

SURABAYA, Indonesia - She has revamped its parks, kickstarted its port development and given free health and education to its poor. But for Tri Rismaharini, the celebrated mayor of Indonesia's second-largest city of Surabaya, one big challenge remains: shutting down Dolly.

That's the name of a brothel complex established in the 1970s in what is now central Surabaya. Each of Dolly's 60 or so brothels hosts up to 100 sex workers, according to Yayasan Abdi Asih, a local NGO. A thousand more women work at hundreds of smaller brothels in neighbouring Jarak.

The two areas combined are often described as Southeast Asia's largest red-light district. Most of the women hail from impoverished rural areas of East Java, a region of Muslim-majority Indonesia famous for its Islamic boarding schools.

Previous mayors have vowed but failed to close the area.

Rismaharini, 52, who was elected in 2010, has not only revived the fortunes of a once-struggling city. She has also joined the pantheon of new Indonesian leaders known for clean, can-do governance. Their apogee is Jakarta's popular governor, Joko Widodo, better known as "Jokowi", who recently announced he will run for president in July.

But can even a new-style leader prevail against the world's oldest profession? Rismaharini believes so. She has already closed down three of Surabaya's smaller red-light areas, and has set a deadline of June 19 to close Dolly.

"I knew Dolly would be hardest and that's why I've tackled it last," Rismaharini told Reuters.

Surabaya city government provided training in cooking, hairdressing and other skills to 650 sex workers in 2010-13, said its public relations department. Some were given 3 million rupiah ($264) to encourage them to return home and start small businesses.

The scheme, which aims to reach 900 sex workers in 2014, allows women to escape exploitation and "choose the life they want", said Rismaharini, Surabaya's first female mayor.

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